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Photography is transformative magic for Xavier Tavera

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Beauty queen
A beauty queen poses in front of a store selling quinceanera dresses in Minneapolis. The image is part of photographer Xavier Tavera's new exhibit Calle Lake, or Lake Street.
Photo courtesy of Xavier Tavera

Photographer Xavier Tavera's latest work highlights the diversity of the Twin Cities Latino community. 

An aging cowboy. A Latina beauty queen. A son with Spiderman printed across his shorts and a father with women tattooed down his arms. They're all showcased in Tavera's current exhibit on display at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Photography is magic. That's how Tavera describes the art form. It can snatch up a split-second of life and turn it into an everlasting moment. Then there's the way it bridges the gap between strangers.

"If I didn't have a camera and I approach somebody in the street and tell them, 'How about you tell me something about you?' that'd be the oddest thing," Tavera explained. "With a camera in my hand, I can go to people and say, 'I want to take a photo of you. Tell me a little bit about yourself.'" 

And most times, Tavera said, they will.

"Just to have that gift from them to me, that is amazing," he said.

His latest project, "Calle Lake," (Lake Street) is set along the ever-changing corridor that has come to symbolize multiculturalism in Minneapolis.

Xavier Tavera photography
This is one of ten portraits featured in photographer Xavier Tavera's latest exhibit. The project is called Calle Lake, or Lake Street, and captures members of the Latino community along that Minneapolis street.
Photo courtesy of Xavier Tavera

"I go around and find people that are interesting, interesting looking and interesting to talk to," Tavera said.

Calle Lake zeroes in on the Latino residents along the street's five-mile stretch. There's the World War II veteran with the perfectly trimmed moustache and flirtatious personality. The bleach-blonde woman with long legs and long fingernails. And a shirtless man whose back is tattooed across with Baroque-like print of his name followed by that of a former flame. The latter is obscured by a huge "X," buzzed on at a later date.

"He decided to just cross that out as if that was in a notebook or something that was disposable," Tavera said. "But it is his skin. It was a statement for him. 'That time of my life is over and I'm going to cross it out. And this is who I am right now.'"

Some in the Latino community question Tavera's subject choices. He lists among some the things he has been told: "You're not photographing the mom, the dad, the two kids and the dog. That's the Latino family."

Agustin Martinez
Agustin Martinez is one of the members of the Minneapolis Latino community showcased in Mexican-American photographer Xavier Tavera's exhibit Calle Lake.
Photo courtesy of Xavier Tavera

But the way Mexico City native explains it, he's not trying to capture the Latino family, nor the Latino community. That, he says, would be impossible. His goal is to showcase the many facets of that community.

"We're good. We're bad. We are beautiful. We are ugly," Tavera said. "And all that makes the Latino community. And that's what I'm trying to photograph."

The power of portraits, Tavera said, is that they allow people to see others in ways they can't or don't in everyday life.

"I made some portraits of gang members, he said. "People at galleries will go really close to them and look at their eyes and stare at them for as long as they want. If one of these guys were passing by, its like, 'Don't make eye contact, look at the ground,'" Tavera said. "But (at the gallery) you have the chance, like, 'Wow this is another human being that is trying to communicate something to me.'"

Tavera believes a successful photo leaves room for viewers to add their own impressions. He tells of a woman who spent a long time examining one of his images. Eventually she asked him to explain the story behind it.

"And I was ready," he recalled, "Telling how this photo is about this person, who is related to this one, and all that. And when I finished my speech, I could see the person very frustrated."

Tavera asked her what she saw in the photo.

"And she came up with a wonderful story about her mom and how that related to the other pictures. And I said, 'You know what, forget everything I just told you. Completely erase it from your mind. Keep that story of yours. That's going to be the story you're going to leave with. That's the real one and there's no other story but that one.'"

For Tavera, being able to provide that kind of experience through photography — well, that's magic.